Urgent action needed to stop heart diseases deaths

The Chronicle

Kudzai Chikiwa

When passing by a hospital, nothing good comes to her mind except flashbacks of her 10-month-old baby bidding her farewell after several hours of struggling to breathe while admitted to Mpilo Central Hospital’s intensive care unit.

On March 9, 2017, Ms Tendai Moyo from Bulawayo’s Nketa suburb gave birth to a bouncing baby girl weighing 4,4 kilogrammes with big brown eyes and pale blue lips at United Bulawayo Hospitals.

No one thought the baby’s blue lips were a symptom of a life threatening disease. Ms Moyo said when baby Rudorwashe gave her first cry, the inside of her cheeks were dark bluish and pale which were a sign of lack of oxygen but no one knew it.

“Rudo’s heart was beating fast and I asked the doctor about it but he said she had a very big body so that’s why she was breathing like that .They said our baby was very healthy,” she sobbingly recalled.

One day an enemy, more life threatening than Aids, more cunning than cancer but never sung of came to dine with them.

While struggling to hold back her tears, Ms Moyo recalled how her baby was diagnosed of a congenital heart disease (CHD).

“When Rudo was seven months old, she developed some flue and was short of breath. We took her to the hospital thinking it was a normal flue. Doctors said she had pneumonia and gave her some medication. A certain nurse observed my baby’s pale lips and asked when it started and I explained that she was born like that.

She said those cyanotic symptoms could be signs of a heart disease and that I should go to Mpilo Central Hospital for further investigation.”

“Upon arrival, we received the shock of our lives, our baby was diagnosed of a CHD known as Tricuspid Artesia. Her doctor, Dr Mary Nyathi, said it was too late as it should have been discovered at birth so Rudo needed an emergency surgery which cost US$15 000 to save her life,” said Ms Moyo.

“Dr Nyathi said Rudo’s left side of the heart was malfunctioning that’s why she had difficulties in breathing and she recommended the surgery. Her heart was beating very fast, and she would sweat a lot.”

With unemployed parents, how would poor Rudo fly to India to get the surgery done? Nothing could be done to save her life.

Ms Moyo vividly remembered December 16, 2017 when she helplessly visited the Chronicle newsroom seeking donations for a trip to India to have Rudo’s surgery done. While well-wishers were starting to donate, her angel became too weak and eventually breathed her last.

“Even today, if you go online, you’ll see websites and donation funds that I had created for Rudo. I had a dream that my baby would survive but she could not stand the battle,” she said while wiping away tears from her eyes.

CHD is a heart problem which is present at birth and is caused by abnormal formation of the heart during foetal development.

In most cases, when a baby is born with CHD, there is no known reason for it although scientists suggest heart defects can be related to an abnormality in the number of an infant’s chromosomes, single gene defects, or environmental factors.

In most cases, CHDs are discovered late and demand surgeries that are very expensive and usually available overseas.

Ms Moyo is one of many women in the southern region of Zimbabwe who have lost their babies to heart diseases mostly because the disease is discovered late and failure to raise money to go for the necessary surgeries.

For a successful surgery overseas, at least US$10 000 is needed.

Mpilo Central Hospital, which caters for patients from half of the provinces in Zimbabwe last had a cardiac surgery 10 years ago making the service out of reach for most parents as it can only be accessible in Harare and overseas.

Patients from the region are forced to go to Mutoko in Mashonaland East province where some Italian cardiac specialists visit thrice a year and select a few to take to Italy for surgeries. With the harsh economic conditions, most parents fail to raise $100 to go to Mutoko.

A few weeks ago, a four-month-old baby died while four others are still critical at Mpilo Central Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and in need of an emergency heart surgery which costs US$10 000 in India before year ends.

Babies in need of open heart surgery include Lungile Makhulumo (three months old), Blessed Katayi (two years old) and Buhlebenkosi Dube (10 months old) who have Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA) and ventricular septal defect (VSD).

The other baby is Raphael Munondwa (four months old).

He has Truncus Arteriosus which is a rare type of heart disease in which a single blood vessel comes out of the right and left ventricles, instead of the normal two vessels.

Mpilo Central Hospital clinical director Dr Solwayo Ngwenya said the service was out of reach for most parents in the city as it can only be accessible in Harare.

“Our services stopped running about a decade ago and currently patients are being referred to Harare.

Heart diseases in new born babies are common just like any other deformity at birth. Most of the cases are caused by environmental factors like heavy metal contamination, industrial waste and family health history,” said Dr Ngwenya.

Bulawayo Provincial Affairs Minister Cde Judith Ncube bemoaned the death of children with CHDs saying she would talk to the Minister of Health and Child Care, Dr Obadiah Moyo, and see if his ministry can arrange that specialists who visit Mutoko can also visit Bulawayo.

“At least it will lessen the burden of having to raise US$10 000 to go to India. While I’m engaging the Health Ministry, it is the responsibility of everyone including the corporate world to join hands in raising funds to help these children,” said Cde Ncube.

After losing her baby, Ms Moyo started a support group called Brave Little Hearts Zimbabwe, to help mothers whose babies are diagnosed of heart diseases and champion congenital diseases.

“I felt a deep cut when I lost my baby and I don’t want other mothers to face what I faced. As a group, we help each other raise funds. We give each other emotional and spiritual support in the Lord. Through advocacy, we have two Bulawayo babies who are undergoing surgery in Italy as we speak,” she said.

Mothers whose children were diagnosed of CHDs said besides financial constraints, they lack family support and are stigmatised as some issues are associated with cultural beliefs and witchcraft.

Mrs Kudakwashe Madanha whose baby was diagonised of a CHD at the age of four months said: “No one understands CHDs because they’re rare. I remember my sister-in-law telling me to go and get tested; she thought I was HIV positive.

“Another relative told me that since my father runs a grinding meal, he is using my son as a chikwambo (goblin) to make money. She accused my father of making his grandson a money making machine,” she sadly said.

Mrs Madanha vividly remembers one night when she thought of relocating to another city because she could not bear the mockery from neighbours who said her son looked skinny like a snake (usually babies with CHDs grow slowly and weigh less for their age).

Miss Ellen Sarson (33) whose son died at four months at Mpilo Central Hospital said sometimes friends and relatives do not understand the pain of death.

“It’s just been nine days since Liam passed away. I feel like people should let me grieve my own way at my own pace. You hear aunts and grannies saying I shouldn’t cry too much because I might end up not having more children. But they don’t dream what l dream and they don’t think, feel or see what I see when I close my eyes.

They don’t understand the bond between a mother and child especially at such a tender age,” she said.

These mothers suggested that there should be awareness campaigns.

“These campaigns should educate society on causes of these diseases, symptoms and signs. It’s unfortunate that CHDs have remained unspoken of as they do not get publicity as HIV/Aids. There’s less literature available concerning these diseases at local health centres compared to cleft lip and cancer,” said Mrs Georgina Mkhaya, whose child was diagnosed at nine months.

In a recent report, the Heart Foundation in Zimbabwe, which was set up to cater for heart diseases said heart surgery remains complex and very expensive in the country.

“Surgery costs range from over US$10 000 per operation for an adult to US$15 000 for a paediatric open heart surgery which is done for infants, excluding other expenses. Heart drugs and sundries are also expensive and most of the time in short supply, especially in rural and remote areas of Zimbabwe,” said the report.

According to the foundation, heart diseases also contribute to the infant mortality in Zimbabwe which is estimated to be at 60 per 100 000.

Zimbabwe Medical Association (Zima) national president, Dr Francis Chiwora, bemoaned the death of babies saying Government should address problems in the health sector to minimise the migration of health specialists to other countries in search of greener pastures.

He said poor working conditions, lack of machinery and equipment and lack of pharmaceuticals in Zimbabwe result in many specialists going overseas leaving gaps in public hospitals.

“Migration of doctors results in patients being forced to fly overseas for medication and surgeries that could have been done in Zimbabwe,” he said.

— @tamary98